Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ModPo essay #1: Emily Dickinson's Initiation Rite of Passage

I taste a liquor never brewed (214)

by Emily Dickinson

I taste a liquor never brewed – 
From Tankards scooped in Pearl – 
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I – 
And Debauchee of Dew – 
Reeling – thro' endless summer days – 
From inns of molten Blue – 

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door – 
When Butterflies – renounce their "drams" – 
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats – 
And Saints – to windows run – 
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!
The central theme of this poem is initiation. It is an initiation into a special order. And it is an on-going initiation that lasts a lifetime.
The idea of initiation is introduced metaphorically in the first stanza’s first two lines, but it is a well-hidden metaphor. Close examination of the “Tankard” metaphor begins its unraveling. It starts with the use, in the 18th and 19th century, of a shilling coin to make daily restitution to members of the British Army and the Royal Navy in exchange for their conscripted service.[i] Acceptance of the King’s Shilling[ii] constituted an agreement to serve and an implicit initiation into military service. The shilling coin was hidden in the bottom of a tankard filled with an alcoholic beverage, with the result that “uninitiated” drunken soldiers and sailors accepted the shilling unaware of the commitment they may have made. During the 19th century, a glass-bottomed tankard was developed to help those young men who did not wish to be conscripted to avoid acceptance of the King’s Shilling, and hence to avoid conscription into military service.[iii] ED’s tankard was not glass-bottomed. It was “scooped in pearl,” a jewel more highly valued than a shilling coin. And because it contained “a liquor never brewed,” one might conclude that her conscription, her initiation was not unwanted, nor induced by trickery. The unbrewed alcohol, however, that lured her is rare and exceptional, exceeding in quality all the “Vats on the Rhine,” i.e., all beverages brewed in Germany, which at that time was the world’s leading producer of alcoholic beverages.
In the second stanza, ED provides additional insights into the initiation process. As an initiate, she is also an “inebriate” and a “debauchee,” both nouns, but both owners of substances not normally suspected of producing a strong kick, i.e., air and dew. As an aside, air that inebriates and dew that debauches both speak to end products of distillation and one of its by-products, condensation, i.e., “the distillation that would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.” (Whitman). The second stanza also introduces the idea of Summer, suggesting that the first stanza is Spring and the third Autumn, since the fourth is obviously Winter. (Idea discussed at the Washington DC ModPo group meeting, September 21, 2012.).
In the third stanza, ED sees herself as the drunken Bee who intentionally and deliberately alights and pollinates the Foxglove flower (door), adhering closely to the Biblical theme of eating from the tree of mixed (good and bad) knowledge. The Foxglove is a herbal flower that is poisonous to humans, but is also used as a drug to slow down the heartbeat, regularize the pulse, and as an antidote to other poisons. [iv] She also sees herself as a “Butterfly,” who flitters without care from flower to flower, never deeply indulging in any particular one. But when the groundskeepers who tend to the Foxglove bushes attempt to shoo the bees away, or when the Butterflies, by their own choice, “renounce” their fair share of nectar, their dram[v] (the amount of rum to which a sailor was entitled each day in the Royal Navy), ED makes up for the difference by consuming their share and more.
But what is it that ED consumes? ED consumes ideas, she consumes wisdom. She refers to it as a liquor never brewed because it is intoxicating and inebriating in its natural form.
The final stanza completes the initiation process. Seraphs, angels, spiritual beings “swing their snowy Hats” because it is winter in the poem, the flowers have fallen off the trees and the nectar in plants have ceased to flow. Perhaps it is also winter in ED’s life. Yet, even in this stanza, even in old age, ED refers to herself as a Tippler, one who continues to consume the wisdom, the ideas, in excess, even in the winter years of her life, deriving warmth and energy from the Sun, the eternal source.
[ii] Op.cit.

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